Starring: Jeong Jae-yeong, Jung Ga-ram, Kim Nam-gil
Written by: Lee Min-jae; Jung Seo-in
Directed By: Lee Min-jae
Zombie films that go full Looney Tunes may be a dime a dozen here in the US, where everybody and their grandmother has made a micro-budget horror film, but in South Korea, where any kind of zombie film is a bit of a rarity, zany approaches to a zombie apocalypse are in particularly short supply. Enter first time director Min-jae Lee’s Zombie for Sale. This all-star cast film hit Korean theaters in February 2019; from there, the little-zombie-film-that-could spread throughout Asia and the UK until, finally, the good folks at Arrow Video have made it available stateside, in July 2020, via a typically excellent Blu-ray presentation.
Related Article: Take One to the Head in Our Exclusive Clip from ZOMBIE FOR SALE
As the film begins, we are introduced to the two main components: Joon-Gul Park (Jae-yeong Jeong), who sabotages a country road so that he can “assist” whichever unlucky driver falls into his trap, and a zombie (Ga-ram Jung) who escapes from a buried container. Joon-Gul’s family is comprised of two-bit scammers who own a service station, and the zombie…well, we never really find out his back story. [SKIP THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH TO AVOID SPOILERS] Suffice it to say, he soon bites a member of the Park family, and the infection spreads. The film takes a number of unique alternatives to the tropes of the conventional zombie formula. The first of these is that the zombie’s bite produces a rejuvenating effect. As soon as the members of the Park family realize this, they immediately start charging the local elders for the opportunity to be bitten. While this is happening, Joon-Gul’s daughter, Nam-Joo (Ji-won Uhm) falls in love with the wretched zombie, who with a little grooming becomes quite dashing. Meanwhile, the initial benefits of the zombie’s bite give way to an after effect; one becomes a proper, flesh-eating zombie. And thus, some good ol’ zombie mayhem ensues with an emphasis on a siege of the buffoonish, but ultimately loveable Park family. There’s also a wonderful twist at the end, but I will not spoil that.
The film juggles so many disparate elements that Western audiences may initially find its rhythms difficult to appreciate. The cinematography is beautiful, the acting is great, and the atmosphere is creepy; then, overly corny musical cues and silly chase sequences introduce an uneasy juxtaposition. By the time slow-motion, romantically-themed, musical interludes entered the mix, this viewer had become thoroughly flummoxed. However, after some initial head-scratching, when the zombie horde attacked all of the elements seemed to all balance out.
The Blu-ray features a commentary track by the co-hosts of Arrow Video’s podcast, special effects artist Dan Martin and writer/director Sam Ashurst. This track is very enjoyable and informative. Martin and Ashurst are old pals, and while neither was involved in the production, their collective knowledge about the film, about the zombie subgenre, and about Korean culture is extensive. Their commentary runs the gamut from minute trivia about the narrative (e.g. the name of the Park family’s fictional town is based off of a Vietnamese beauty company) to the ironic tragedy of analyzing a zombie film during the Covid-19 pandemic. The commentary also reveals the very concise description of the film which was included in a series of hashtags on a Korean version of the film’s poster: #manyzombiescomeout #thereisromance #thereisaction #alotoflaughs.
Another supplement of note is the 20-minute video essay by critic/producer Pierce Conran. “Eat Together, Kill Together: The Family-in-Peril Comedy” delves into a “second golden age” of Korean films, which emphasizes the family unit and is characterized by strong social satire. Notably, this movement Conran says began with The Quiet Family (1998) places marginalized characters (usually slow or simple folks) into chaotic — and often fantastical — scenarios, wherein their trials usually involve direct or symbolic dissociation conflicting with broader social and political institutions. The main takeaway is that the family bond is a force of no small significance. Conran cites examples ranging from The Host (2007) to last year’s Academy Award-winning Parasite (2019).
Additional Blu-ray supplements include a 13-minute Q&A with director Min-jae Lee, a 5-minute making-of featurette, two 1-minute behind-the-scenes montages, and a trailer. The packaging features a reversible sleeve with original and newly-commissioned artwork by Mike Lee-Graham, and, for the first pressing only, a collector’s booklet with additional discussion of the zombie film within Korean cinema (essay by Josh Hurtado).
While Min-jae Lee’s Zombie for Sale initially seems like a hodgepodge of elements ranging from the histrionics of Korean dramas to the darkness of I Saw the Devil to the campiest, silliest children’s film one could imagine, these things gradually meld together into a wholly unique and commendable entry into the greater canon of zombie films. Given that viewers understand what the commentators do — that the priority of this film is not logic, it is entertainment — Zombie for Sale is quite an enjoyable ride, and the extra features that Arrow Video has included to provide thought-provoking and entertaining context make this Blu-ray a great one.